The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language | Study Guide

Steven Pinker

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Course Hero, "The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language Study Guide," May 1, 2020, accessed June 21, 2021, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Language-Instinct-How-the-Mind-Creates-Language/.

The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language | Chapter 3 : Mentalese | Summary

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Key Takeaways

  • Thought is not dependent on language, nor does it determine language.
  • The mind utilizes a specialized language of thought Pinker refers to as "mentalese."
  • According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, developed by Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf, language mediates thinking. According to this line of thinking, categories of reality are culturally based. No credible scientific evidence supports the hypothesis.
  • Pinker uses several observations to refute the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. First, people's expression of ideas often differs from their intention. Second, thoughts cannot always be expressed in words. Third, new words are coined. Fourth, children learn words. Fifth, languages are translated one from another.
  • Pinker refutes the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis by citing advances in cognitive science. First, experimental studies now successfully assess nonverbal thought. For example, experiments suggest that visual thinking is not done in language but through a "mental graphics system." Second, according to "the physical symbol system hypothesis," which is fundamental to cognitive science, the mind operates similarly to a computer, with both "representations and processors."
  • Human language cannot carry out the role of "processor" to perform valid reasoning. Therefore, language cannot be the determiner of thought. Five problems prevent it from doing so: (1) the ambiguity of language; (2) language's "lack of logical explicitness"; (3) "co-referencing," or the brain's ability to understand when different words refer to the same thing; (4) deixis, or interpretation of the meaning of a text or conversation based on its context; and (5) synonymy, or recognizing that ideas stated in different ways mean the same thing.
  • Language is inadequate to encompass all that goes on in the mind. Humans "think in a language of thought," which Pinker contends is a universal human trait, even among those who cannot speak.
  • Thought operates independently of language.
  • Thoughts outnumber words.
  • Children create complex grammar rather than simply copy adult language.
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